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By: Zdenko Kahlina
Whitewater Rafting – South Fork American River (CA)
During our visit to Murphys this summer, in the Calaveras County, gold rush era town in Northern California, we had an opportunity to go rafting on the American river. As it turns out, our daughter’s boyfriend James is one of the guides for O.A.R.S rafting company and he invited the whole group of his Croatian quests to the South Fork American River for one rafting adventure.
Whitewater Rafting – South Fork American River
Perfect for the First-Time Rafter, and a Quick Weekend-Get-Away
We had the best time on the South Fork. Our guide James said before we boarded the raft: Welcome to my office!! He was just fabulous in taking good care of us, sharing his knowledge of the river environment and just having fun!
If you ever, in this life, have a chance to go whitewater rafting down the beautiful South Fork of the American River in Coloma, CA (and don’t do it), you are missing out! The area is truly idyllic and beautiful and has all of the rustic charm of Northern California gold country as you’d imagine it to. Located only 2 hours drive from Murphys where we were staying (at James’s house), and 3 only hours from San Francisco; or about an hour and a half from Lake Tahoe, it’s one of Northern California’s gems, and is well worth a visit, especially during rafting season!! The river offers a wide range of adventures, with over 50 exciting rapids interspersed with calm, slower stretches where you can enjoy the beautiful canyon scenery and each other’s company. This trip made my 2012 travel experience unforgettable and life changing. Thank you James!!
The South Fork of the American river
The South Fork of the American river runs from the High Sierra’s near Lake Tahoe to Folsom Reservoir in the Sacramento area. The water flows are controlled by a series of nine dams. The dams store the water which insures that there is enough water to raft for the summer. It’s a Class III run which is ideal for first-time and intermediate rafters like us.
Melting snow from the High Sierras creates this 21-mile Whitewater River in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada near Coloma on Highway 49. The water is clear and cool; the air is clean and warm – the perfect setting for a fun, exciting adventure. The river environment is home to a multitude of fish, birds, and other wildlife. The scenery alternates between rolling green and golden hills and long rocky gorges with many oaks and pines along the riverbank.
O.A.R.S office at the Lotus campground
Lunch was served…
Vera and Zdenko excited before rafting down the river
The South Fork’s many whitewater rapids are perfect for learning and practicing the paddle skills of whitewater rafting. Each 13 or 14 foot self-bailing raft usually has a crew of 4 to 7 paddlers, and an experienced guide at the back of the boat who steers the raft and instructs the crew in basic paddle strokes, in order to power the raft through the rapids as a team. This time on the river O.A.R.S. had three rafts with total of 17 paddlers. In our smaller yellow raft, James positioned my daughter Sanja and me at the front, three girls Nikolina, Vera and Lidija in the middle and James was at the back of the raft in charge of maneuvering. Under our captain’s guidance, we set up for each approaching rapid, paddle hard to make it through safely, and sit back to laugh and relax with each successful, wet run of an exciting rapid.
The first several miles are relatively easy…
There were many rafters on the river that day
Since whitewater does not flow in one direction we had to deal with rocks, Eddies, and other obstacles. Our goal was to keep the raft parallel with the current. To avoid ‘wandering’, we always tried to align the vessel with the current. We would slow down by doing back strokes and make forward strokes to move ahead. Slow forward, fast forward, back paddle and down in the boat, were some of the ‘commands’ James was using to guide us through the rapids. To ferry raft across the river we had to make sure that the raft was parallel with the flow. James seemed to like moving the raft sideways and I didn’t, but he was the ‘captain’! He even told us one joke about what different fundamental strokes with paddles have in common with sex. I immediately changed the way I was making the paddle strokes to ‘deep and long’ … lol!
The one-day section of the South Fork is a Class III run on a 10 mile stretch of the river which starts at the Lotus campground on the bank of the river. This river has it all: good rapids, beautiful riverside scenery and great camping!
The river was nice and cold perfect during the summer. This run has just enough exciting rapids to challenge. You might fall out of the boat but you never feel like you’re in immanent danger. A great run for first timers and children 8+. You can also jump out and swim many times or ride a couple of rapids without the boat. One of the girls from our group (Nikolina) did it! It is lots of fun!
Don’t think you have to be a sports-a-holic to cruise the river. If you can swim, you can raft – and bring your parents. But, if you want rapids and adventure, there are many rafting tours that will ferry you down and bring you home. The river is beautiful and full of fun for everyone. Come and cool off like we did! By the way — many of the rapids you’ll ride on have been in movies and TV shows. In fact, ‘Indiana Jones’ himself rafted through some of those same rapids!
Rafters at the Satan’s Cesspool rapid
Camp Lotus to Folsom Lake – 11 Miles, Class III
The South Fork below Lotus camp is a great boating run. Most commercial raft trips start near the middle, at El Dorado County and Hennesy Park in Lotus or at private campgrounds. You can raft the upper stretch which puts in at Chili Bar or you can raft the Lower which puts in at either Camp Lotus, Henningson Park, or Marshall State Park. Many of the commercial Whitewater outfitters including All-Outdoors California Whitewater Rafting put-in at Camp Lotus.
The best campground off the river is Camp Lotus, which is located in the tiny town of Lotus, near Coloma. At the camp we signed the O.A.R.S. waiver forms (standard procedure) and had a lunch. The guides than went through the security check list with all of us to ensure we know the basics about rafting and we were ready to get onto the river.
From there, the first several miles are relatively easy, and paddlers can practice their teamwork. We even had fun spraying other rafters with cold water and they did the same with us. Then the canyon narrows into to the Gorge and Class III+ rapids come in succession: Fowler’s Rock, Satan’s Cesspool, Bouncing Rock, and Hospital Bar. The rapids on the South Fork are “rock garden” style rapids: meaning rocks in the channel create the rapids.
Satan’s Cesspool rapid
At one of the slow sections, there was a man on shore and James told us that here was an incident several years ago, when people stopped on shore and the farmer came up to them with the shotgun. Some shots were apparently fired… and than, just as we passed that guy on shore, there was a sound of a shot gun… we all got scared, but when I turned around and looked at James, he was laughing his ears off… yet another of his tricks… playing a joke on us!!
With the correct line of approach, most of the rapids on this river require little maneuvering. In the lower reach, Fowler’s Rock may be the trickiest, with its wrap rocks and ledges. After Fowler’s Rock, Haystack Canyon offers big standing waves. Photographers often set up at Satan’s and Hospital Bar. Bouncing Rock may toss passengers, and Hospital Bar will shake up those who run into the hole on the right side.
Going into the Satan’s Cesspool rapid
Going through the Satan’s Cesspool rapid
Satan’s Cesspool rapid
This is one of the most popular rapids on the South Fork. The unusual geology here creates a tight chute that bends suddenly to the right. If you aren’t bouncing against the walls, you may have time to smile for the photographers waiting on shore. This is what James’s “day in the office” at Whitewater Connection looks like! It is a tough, tough job.
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A 9ft smaller raft, filled with Croatian paddlers, punching through Satan’s Cesspool rapid on the South Fork American River.
Nice steering captain James!
Hospital Bar rapid
These next photos are of the “Hospital Bar” rapid of the South Fork of the American River. This is a Class III rapid in the Gorge section of the river.
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Hospital Bar rapid
From Chilli Bar Bridge, the river descends at a steep gradient of 30 feet per mile. The first 5 miles of rafting are chocked full of exciting Class III whitewater with rapids like Meatgrinder and Trouble Maker. The next 9 miles descend 9 feet per mile through the Coloma/Lotus valley and consists of numerous Class II rapids. The last 5 miles are mostly Class III descending 33 per mile, with challenging rapids such as Fowlers, Bouncing Rock and Hospital Bar. Large pools follow each rapid, allowing rafters time to regroup or rather spread out a bit, because there were many rafters on the river that day.
If it looks easy… it wasn’t!!!
The best part of the river…
Lean forward Zdenko!!
Paddle, paddle… Fast forward!
The trip ends on Folsom Lake where you will get a good work out by paddling across the reservoir. Well organized commercial rafting companies pay one of the towboats for a ride. We were lucky enough to have one of the towboats pulling us to the shore. Private boaters take out on the right above the Salmon Falls Bridge and commercial outfitters take out on the left after the bridge.
If Folsom Lake is full, two miles of flat water require pushing against the wind (or getting a boat tow) to the take-out at Salmon Falls Road bridge. But if Folsom is low enough, the current runs all the way to the bridge and saves some paddling.
As we were getting out of our raft, impressed with this rafting trip I made a comment in front of James ‘what am I doing in the office every day (instead of being here)! His immediate response again was: ‘Welcome to my office!’, which is true… he has the best job in the world! I envy you James!
Note: Salmon Falls was a town famous for a 20 foot waterfall that stopped salmon from spawning in the upper reaches of the South Fork. The town and the falls were covered and destroyed by Folsom Lake.
Is it over yet?? Can we go again??
Yuppie… It was fun!!
and always remember: When you’re on river, there is no Google. Just your Guide!
South Fork American River Rafting > Mile-by-Mile
The following mile-by-mile river map contains the most common names of the rapids. It is not uncommon for boaters to have different names for some of the rapids.
Mile By Mile:
0 Put-In: Chili Bar River Access. Fees charged.
0.6 Meatgrinder Class III+
1.3 Racehorse Bend Class III
1.5 Maya Class II-III.
2.0 African Queen Rapid. Class II.
3.1 Triple Threat Rapid Class III.
Miner’s Creek. on river right. is a recommended lunch stop with rest room facilities.
4.4 Indian Creek enters on river left. Beginning of Quiet zone.
5.2 Troublemaker Rapid. Class III+.
5.2 American River Resort River Access and Campground. Fees charged.
5.5 Coloma Resort River Access and Campground. Fees charged.
5.6 Coloma Bridge. built in 1917.
5.7 Sutter’s's Mill site.
6.0 Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park – North Beach River Access Area. Fees charged. Picnic and rest room facilities. Take-outs are prohibited.
7.1 Old Scary Class II.
7.4 Highway 49 Bridge River Access. Parking under bridge is prohibited.
8.0 Henningsen-Lotus County Park River Access (funded by the Dept. of Boating and Waterways). Fees charged. Upstream and downstream from this park are small parcels of BLM public lands.
9.0 Camp Lotus River Access and Campground. Fees charged.
9.1 Barking Dog Class II.
10.6 Current Divider Class II+.
11.2 Highway Class II.
11.5 Greenwood Creek on river right. End of the Quiet Zone.
12.0 Cable Corner Class II.
12.2 BLM public land on river right is a recommended lunch/camping area with rest room facilities.
12.8 There are several lunch/camping sites (no facilities on BLM public lands between Hastings Creek and mile 13.4.)
15.8 Fowler’s Rock Beginning of the Gorge. Class III-
16.2 Upper Haystack Canyon Class III
16.9 Satan’s Cesspool Class III+
17.0 Deadman’s Drop or Son of Satan’s Class II+
17.6 Lower Haystack Canyon Class II+
17.7 BLM land to mile 18.1
18.1 Weber Creek enters on river left at mile
18.2 Bouncing Rock Class II+
18.6 Hospital Bar Class III
18.7 Recovery Room Class II+
19.4 Surprise Rapid. Class III
20.5 Salmon Falls Bridge take-out on the right bank upstream of the bridge. Parking fees charged.
We could end up like these rafters, but we didn’t!
The South Fork of the American River changed world history in 1848 when California’s first gold was discovered in its stream bed at Sutter’s Mill. This discovery triggered the California Gold Rush of 1849, sometimes referred to as the largest human migration for a single purpose since the Crusades. Unfortunately, once the easily found gold was removed, the miners made a mess of things with their hydraulic pumps, causing folks downstream to complain. Eventually, the mining operations were shut down, and today you can still find huge trenches created by the miners 150 years ago.
The Coloma-Lotus Valley is the major destination of the South Fork, shaped by the river today as in 1848. Three riverfront parks provide opportunities for family picnics and wading, and Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park brings California’s history to life. This stretch of the South Fork, the most popular whitewater in California, provides many great opportunities for river recreation. The 20-mile run from Chili Bar to Salmon Falls, features over 20 named rapids and countless waves in between. Most paddlers run the river with a commercial rafting company. Outfitters provide the equipment, experienced guides, plus life jackets and other gear, so that you can enjoy the outdoor adventure without the hassle or expense of investing in your own equipment.
Those who decide to invest the time in learning to navigate the river themselves will also find the South Fork a great destination. The 3-mile, Class II “Coloma to Lotus” stretch is an ideal introduction to whitewater. Intermediate boaters enjoy the increased challenge of the Class III “Chili Bar” and “Gorge” runs, and the expert kayakers spend hours perfecting their rodeo moves in the world-famous Chili Bar Hole and other play spots. Private rafters and kayakers alike will find lots of information on river conditions, logistics and local resources in the Resources and Kayaking pages.site.
River Rating System
• Class I: Slow moving water with small waves. No obstacles.
• Class II: Moderate rapids with few obstacles. This is good for families with small children.
• Class III: Numerous waves with obstacles, eddies and narrow passages requiring expertise in maneuvering. This is the most popular class of river. Good for beginners.
• Class IV: Long difficult rapids with powerful waves and numerous obstacles. Requires experienced athletic rafters with strong paddling skills.
• Class V: Difficult long and violent rapids with big drops and few calm areas. This is extremely high risk rafting- Professional only.
• Class VI: Commercially unrunnable. Don’t even think about it.
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